Opioids are a type of narcotic medication that are designed to help people with chronic pain. For many sufferers, prescription medications are the only way to manage pain and improve their quality of life.
But these drugs can also be highly addictive, putting people at risk for opioid overdose, either intentionally or not.
Opioid abuse and opioid addiction have reached epidemic levels. Opioids have not only taken the lives of famous people like Prince and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but they have also taken the lives of countless everyday Americans. In 2020, opioids were involved in nearly 70,000 deaths (of the more than 90,000 drug overdose deaths) in the U.S.
The opioid epidemic is a complicated problem that requires many solutions. Scientists and health care professionals are working toward finding solutions. Along with increased outreach and education about the harsh reality of these drugs, another solution is a medication called naloxone (also known as the brand name Narcan).
What is naloxone?
“Naloxone is a safe medication used to reverse opioid overdose,” said Bryan Kuhn, PharmD, a pharmacist and poison education specialist at Banner Health in Phoenix, AZ. “When it is used correctly, this drug can reverse the effects of opioids and quickly reestablish breathing to someone who is overdosing—even before first responders arrive.”
Naloxone is so helpful that the U.S. Surgeon General has recommended that the following groups use the drug and keep it within reach to prevent overdose deaths:
- Patients currently taking high doses of opioids as prescribed for pain management
- People misusing prescription opioids
- People using illicit opioids, such as heroin or fentanyl
- Health care professionals, such as emergency responders
- Family members and friends of people who have an opioid use disorder
- Community members who encounter people at risk for opioid overdose
Here are five things to know about opioid use, the use of naloxone and what you can do to possibly save a life.
How do opioids affect the body?
Even though you may think opioids are drugs like morphine and fentanyl, your body actually makes its own opioid chemicals known as endogenous opioids. These chemicals are responsible for the release of endorphins or happy chemicals that boost feelings of pleasure and contentment.
“Endogenous opioids interact with the same receptors as prescription and illicit opioids. These opioid receptors are found in the brain, lungs, heart, gut, and spinal cord and include the mu, delta and kappa receptors,” Dr. Kuhn said. “Activation of these receptors by opioids helps regulate pain relief, reward, and addictive behaviors, as well as control functions of the central nervous system.”
However, your body’s natural opioids can’t compete with the intense highs produced by opioid drugs. Think of your body’s natural rewards like being on a pleasurable ride along the countryside, while drug-induced feelings are like a euphoric-filled roller coaster.
Those bigger surges are more desirable, which is why many seek out these drugs.
How does naloxone work?
Naloxone is used to reverse opioid overdoses, either as a nasal spray or by injection. An overdose occurs when opioids fully block your brain’s own opioid receptors (like mu, delta and kappa), causing your breathing to slow and ultimately stop.
“Naloxone is known as an opioid antagonist, meaning it knocks off opioid drugs that are attached to receptors blocking their effects and preventing them from returning,” Dr. Kuhn said. “Giving naloxone can rapidly reverse the effects of opioid drugs and can restore normal breathing.”
Where can I find naloxone?
Naloxone is available by prescription or without prescription with a pharmacist. However, there are plans at the national level to make this drug available over the counter in the near future.
Price and availability can vary, but naloxone is increasingly being covered by insurance (including Medicaid). If you can’t pay out-of-pocket due to financial circumstances, some programs can help you get naloxone for free or at a reduced price.
You can find it at many pharmacies and independent drugstores like Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid. For help locating naloxone within your state, visit naloxoneforall.org.
Does naloxone expire?
There is an expiration date on naloxone, which is the date manufacturers will guarantee the potency of the medication. However, medication doesn’t immediately become useless after the expiration date.
“In some cases, it can last months or years later if it is stored properly,” Dr. Kuhn said. “It’s better to use an expired dose than to not administer anything at all. Depending on the drug manufacturer, it might be possible to exchange expired medication for in-date medication.”
Won’t naloxone just increase opioid abuse?
Some have suggested naloxone just encourages further opioid abuse, but several studies have demonstrated this is not true. Increased access to naloxone has shown no increase in opioid misuse or overdoses.
“When someone is saved from an overdose, this drug gives them the chance they need to begin recovery,” Dr. Kuhn said. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
It’s especially important to carry naloxone as a precautionary measure when you or someone you know is in recovery as the relapse rate for opioid use is as high as 90%.
Take steps to protect yourself or someone you know
Unfortunately, opioid users are not able to self-administer naloxone, but you can help.
Naloxone is simple to use—almost anyone can administer naloxone and prevent an overdose. It’s important for anyone in the position to help someone who could experience an opioid overdose be trained on how to recognize the signs and respond quickly.
Many states offer free naloxone education programs that teach how to use naloxone and provide the drug.
Naloxone is a medication that safely and effectively reverses an opioid overdose—and saves lives. It is available in many states with or without a prescription. Many free educational programs can teach you how to properly use the drug.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction:
Call the Banner Behavioral Health appointment line at (800) 254-4357.
If you suspect an overdose, call 911, and administer naloxone.